(Part 1) Deploying Kubernetes' Applications: The Solution

(Part 1) Deploying Kubernetes' Applications: The Solution

In the first blog post in this series, we examined how our previous deployment strategy of running kubectl apply -f on static manifests did not meet our increasingly complex requirements for our strategy/system for deploying Kubernetes’ applications. In the second, and final, post in this mini-series, we’ll outline the new deployment strategy and how it fulfills our requirements.

The new system


Our new deployment strategy makes use of Helm, a popular tool in the Kubernetes ecosystem which describes itself as “a tool that streamlines installing and managing Kubernetes applications.”

Helm manages “Charts”, which are packages of templated Kubernetes resources. For example, a Chart might comprise of Deployment, Service, and Ingress objects. When interacting with a Chart, we specify variables, which help fill in the template of our preconfigured Kubernetes’ resources. Returning to our previous example, our Chart might support specifying variable indicating the number of replica Pods the Deployment should manage.

Once we’ve written a Chart, we can interact with it in a number of different ways. If we deploy another part of Helm called Tiller to our Kubernetes cluster, we can use the helm client to directly install Charts on our cluster. See this tutorial for an example of a workflow which relies on Tiller. Alternatively, we could use the helm template command to generate yaml manifest files for the Kubernetes’ resources our chart defines. helm template allows us to specify the variables for the manifest templates. We can then apply the output of helm template via kubectl apply -f.

For example, to deploy our blog via this strategy, we can run the following:

helm template -f HELM-VARIABLE_FILE.yaml | kubectl apply -f -

While the former method utilizes more of Helm’s functionality and abilities, we decided on the latter method for a couple of different reasons. First, in the helm template method, we don’t need to perform the non-trivial task of securely installing Tiller on our cluster. Additionally, the latter method is less complex in that we don’t need to worry about how Tiller operates or how Helm manages “releases” and “installs” of Charts. Rather, we can just use the kubectly apply -f tool we are familiar with. Doing so retains our Git repo as the source of truth. Finally, the Helm 3 Design Proposal gets rid of Tiller entirely, so it seems like there may be a benefit to waiting a couple of months to get more insight and clarity on Tiller’s role going forward. Nothing about choosing the helm template option prevents us from pursuing the tiller option later should we decide its beneficial.

How our new system fulfills our requirements

With a good sense of our new deployment system, we can now evaluate whether it meets our listed requirements.


Our first requirement was that we must be able to write a manifest once, and deploy it in multiple environments with minimal effort and duplication. Our new system easily meets this requirement, as we can easily use Helm’s variables to write a manifest once, and then deploy it with different variables depending on the environment. In practice, we define a helm-environments directory, and we then include _helm-environments/(development|production).yaml every time we deploy an application. In addition to setting other variables, these files set environment=(development|production), and we can then additionally use the environment variable to determine whether to include certain manifest components. For example, we only want to create AWS specific resources in production.

Our next requirement was that, since these applications are suitably complex, we want to be able to define multiple, tunable parameters and share them across all the manifests comprising an application. A Chart’s function is to group multiple manifests into a single application, and when we pass variables to the Chart, they are available to all of the manifests. So this requirement is met.

An additional requirement is that we want interactions with secrets to be secure and simple. In our new system, each Chart containing secrets has two files: secret-values.yaml and secret-values.yaml.sample. The former contains all the Charts’ secrets and we include it with the -f flag whenever we run helm template. It is not checked into source control. The secret-values.yaml.sample contains just a list of the secrets we need to define, not the actual values for those secrets. It is checked into source control, as it doesn’t contain any sensitive information. After cloning the repo for the first time, we can convert secret-values.yaml.sample to secret-values.yaml via a simple envsubst command, as described in our Grafana deployment’s README.md. With this strategy, our secrets are in one isolated location, and restricted to the developer’s local machines.

As a penultimate requirement, our deployment strategy must support grouping a complex application’s components together conceptually without unnecessary duplication and sharing variables between them. For example, if we have a web app A and web app B, each of which require a Postgres database, we should be able to deploy web app A with its uniquely configured database and web app B with its uniquely configured database, yet maintain only one source of truth for how we deploy a generic database. Helm supports this grouping of application components via Chart Dependencies.

Finally, we require the ability to leverage already existing community investments to deploy applications via Kubernetes. Helm easily supports this via their massive community repository of Charts. We can either deploy these Charts directly, or we can use them as a source of reference.

Migrating from our old system to our new system

We convinced ourselves of this new deployment system’s merit. But, we still needed to convert all of our personal-k8s applications to use the new deployment strategy.


Fortunately, the process for doing so was fairly trivial, and only requires the following steps:

  1. Create the helm chart with helm create APP_NAME.
  2. Copy over the static manifests from the old deployment strategy into the templates directory in the Chart.
  3. Extract out variables/secrets into values.yaml and secret-values.yaml respectively.
  4. Deploy the application and ensure nothing meaningful changed.

For a more hands on example, this diff shows an example of the work required to migrate Grafana from the old deployment system to the new deployment system.

Guidelines for our new system


We used the development of our new deployment strategy as an opportunity to add more formal guidelines around using Helm to deploy an application to our k8s cluster. For example, we want all of our Kubernetes objects to share common label keys for the concepts of Name, Environment, etc. You can see the entire list of guidelines in the design docs. Formally listing these guidelines helps us ensure we continue to deploy applications in a uniform manner, which only increases in importance as we deploy more and more applications.


To summarize, in part 0, we outlined our requirements for deploying our increasingly complex applications on Kubernetes and verified our previous system of deployment failed to meet these requirements. In this blog post, we outlined our new system for deploying applications, and verified that it met all of our requirements. We then briefly discussed the process of migrating all of our applications from the old system to the new system, and how we will preserve cohesion in the new system going forward. I’m looking forward to utilizing this new deployment system to deploy some exciting new applications. And in fact, an upcoming blog post will discuss how we deployed NextCloud on our Kubernetes cluster, which would’ve been substantially more difficult with our old deployment strategy. Looking forward to it!

P.S. My apologies for the delay since my last post. I took a little break from Kubernetes and blogging to code my way through Writing An Interpreter In Go. I just wrapped up the last chapter yesterday, so hopefully I’ll return to a more frequent cadence going forward.

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